The conundrum of being the ‘first gay rom-com from a major studio’

·6 min read
Bros
Bros

Evan Ross Katz is In The Know’s pop culture contributor. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram for more.

“I messed up,” Sam Smith said days after winning their first Academy Award in 2017. In their acceptance speech, they had mistakenly claimed that they were the first openly gay man (Smith came out as non-binary two years later) to triumph at the prestigious award​ ​ceremony. (In his defense, he was quoting Sir Ian McKellen and recognized in the speech itself the possibility that this was not factually true). “It made me realize that what I say can be damaging,” they said, reflecting on what we can now recognize as an innocent mistake.

​A year later, during an appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show, Rebel Wilson declared she was proud to be “the first-ever plus-size girl to be the star of a romantic comedy,” to boisterous applause.​ Days later, after being reminded of Mo’Nique, Queen Latifah, Melissa McCarthy, Ricki Lake and others, Wilson issued a now-deleted apology on Twitter.

Billy Eichner, whose best work I would still contend is his popular “Name a Woman” segment from his television series Billy on the Street, is facing a similar, albeit slower percolating pushback over his new film Bros. The film is being heavy-handedly marketed by Universal as “the first gay romantic comedy to premiere by a major studio” — or as Gawker put it, “Billy Eichner is the first gay man ever — or at least that’s what the ‘Bros’ marketing campaign would have you believe.”

That historic designation has been picked up by just about every press opp, each touting this achievement without regard for its truthfulness. What about Fire Island, released earlier this summer by Searchlight Pictures? Or Happiest Season, the Clea DuVall-directed holiday rom-com from 2020 produced by TriStar/Sony (it was set for a theatrical release, but that was scrapped due to COVID).

Eichner, for his part, seems aligned with Universal’s marketing ploy. “This is not an indie movie,” he told Variety in a new profile. “This is not some streaming thing which feels disposable, or which is like one of a million Netflix shows.” Many saw this as an overt reference to Fire Island and Netflix’s Uncoupled, two buzzy gay projects that were created by and starred gay men. (Notably, Bros is directed by and co-written by two heterosexual men.) In doing so, Eichner seemed to position his film as more legit than his contemporaries, as opposed to being amongst a cadre, with his film just happening to have a larger budget. As Fire Island’s Joel Kim Booster put it to me in a June GQ profile: “Releasing us from the scarcity politics of queer media is going to be huge not only for audiences but for creators too.”

In the same Variety profile, Eichner also says he wants the film to do well “for the sake of the LGBTQ stories getting greenlit.” He makes this statement without regard for the Academy Award-winning Best Picture Moonlight or Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Language Film A Fantastic Woman or Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader or Andrew Heigh’s Weekend or Todd Haynes’s Carol or Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning or Stephan Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho or Dee Rees’s Pariah or Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country or John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch or Sean Baker’s Tangerine or Joe Mantello’s The Boys In The Band or Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin or Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant or Greg Berlanti’s Love, Simon. This is to articulate a long and healthy lineage of LGBTQ stories being greenlit. Could we use more? Always. Is Bros a welcome addition to the canon? Without a doubt. But the fact remains; it’s a part of a lineage rather than breaking entirely new ground.

Eichner seemed to acknowledge just this in a series of clarifying tweets released hours after the Variety article went live. “I was not at ALL referring to the quality or monumental impact of streaming films, I was referring to the way that, historically, LGBTQ+ content has often been considered niche and disregarded by Hollywood.” Again, I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment, given Moonlight’s Best Picture win alone. He continued, this time adjusting his language: “I am very proud Bros is one of many projects – theatrical, streaming, online, etc – where so many of us are finally getting to tell our own LGBTQ+ stories… From the bottom of my heart, I truly am so sorry if I inadvertently offended or insulted anyone. I really am.“

As my friend Ryan recently put it, everyone is addicted to “dunking,” meaning the lashing Eichner has been facing online likely has less to do with self-aggrandizing quotes and more to do with an internet culture that jumps at the opportunity to eviscerate someone to varying degrees of deservedness. Still, this could be an inflection point for how a film like this is marketed. Take M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming Knock at the Cabin, a horror flick with a gay couple played by two openly gay actors (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) at the center. It’s unlikely this will be promoted as the first gay horror film from a major studio.

Still, let’s not discount the fact that the release of Bros is a big deal. Unlike Fire Island and Happiest Season, Bros will benefit from having a wide theatrical release. And though the future of LGBTQ stories does not hinge on the success of the film, if Bros does well, it could trigger studios to take more and bigger bets on LGBTQ stories. Take the breakout success of Crazy Rich Asians, which led to an influx of Asian-centric projects being greenlit. “When a movie with all Asian leads brings up $35 million in the first week, executives sit up and take notice,” writer/producer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen told NBC News. This is likely the hope for Bros; its success can open the floodgates for more opportunities for LGBTQ storytelling.

Will this fiasco sink the possibility of Bros‘ success? Not at all. I’d even argue that this has only bolstered Bros discourse. But it might give the marketing team a moment of pause in reconsidering how they frame the film. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go stream the first gay rom-com to feature a cover of Britney Spears’s “Sometimes”: Fire Island.

If you enjoyed this story, check out this preview of what Season 3 of “Hacks” has planned!

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